SAN FRANCISCO -- The black tattoo that once wrapped Cris Pulido's throat now looks like a smear of grease.
One year ago it was the Mayan symbol for the number 13, which in gang-speak signifies the 13th letter of the alphabet, M. M is code for Mexican Mafia, which is another code for Sureno, which is what Pulido used to be.
"I remember the excitement I saw in other people's eyes when they looked at it," Pulido said. "It was like they were thinking, 'Man, that's so cool,' " when in reality, they were probably thinking the opposite."
Pulido lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., and is one of the thousands of former California gang members who have entered tattoo removal programs that cities began offering about 15 years ago. The programs are seeing a steady increase in the number of participants, officials say.
That may not suggest a decline in gang membership, they say, but it does offer hope that a once-unthinkable action for hardened gang members -- erasing the marks of allegiance and loyalty -- is becoming more acceptable.
It's also sending a message to younger gangsters that the lifestyle does not have to be permanent.
Toni Abraham, program manager for employment services at Social Advocates for Youth in Sonoma County, said 65 people have entered the county's tattoo removal program this year, up from about 30 who signed up in 2010.
Although conditions are different for each participant, most are eligible for the program after completing 25 hours of community service and paying a $50 fee.
"People who are thinking about changing their lives, this can be one of their first steps," Abraham said. "Kids in juvenile hall are hearing it in lockup: The first thing to do when they get out is get their tattoos removed."
Irwin Tenorio, 20, got his first tattoos -- an old-English S and R on the backs of his upper arms -- at age 12.
Gang tattoos deceive, Tenorio said. They tell stories that aren't true.
"I felt like when I got them I got love from my friends," Tenorio said. "I'd become a role model to them. But the fundamental truth was that was all a lie."
Tenorio was in Sonoma County Jail in 2009 on a drug charge when he had his epiphany. With a daughter recently born, he told jailers he wanted to be moved into the cellblock reserved for "dropouts" who wanted out of their gang.
During the tattoo removal visits, Tenorio focuses on his past to withstand the pain. The laser removal process pulls the skin to extract the ink, leaving the skin raised and angry. Most patients undergo 25-minute sessions and spread appointments over three to four months.
Tenorio said it feels as if "a hundred rubber bands are stretched out and let go on your skin, over and over and over again."
Tenorio said he's leaving one tattoo -- his daughter's name along the side of his forearm.
Tenorio was recently hired by Social Advocates for Youth to do maintenance work, landscape and tend a sunflower garden.
"I think those guys who I wanted love and respect from back then -- they wouldn't give me love back," Tenorio said. "But I think in the back of their minds, somewhere, if they saw what I was doing now they'd feel happy for me."
(Email Justin Berton at email@example.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)